Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Shift Whistles


Antique Steam Whistle, Public Domain (via Wikipedia)

When I was growing up in Youngstown, days were broken into three parts, basically first or day shift (7 am to 3 pm), second or afternoon shift (3 pm to 11 pm) and third or night shift (11 pm to 7 am). We lived close enough to the mills that we could hear the shift whistles announcing the start of one shift and the end of another. When I was in elementary school and the weather was warm and the windows open, 3 pm shift whistle told us we had just 15 minutes before the school bell would ring the end of the day. The 7 am whistle was a good wake up call. The 11 pm whistle was a reminder at a certain point in my teen years that if you were out, it was time to be home. (Remember the TV ads that solemnly pronounced: “It is 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”). The whistle sounded something like this.

The cover article in the current issue of YSU Magazine, Youngstown State’s alumni magazine, brought back this childhood memory. A team of five Mechanical Engineering Technology students have reproduced the steam-powered stainless steel shift whistle, similar to those used in steel mills, to be used at YSU football games as a “spirit” whistle. It sounds in the note of C and in tests has been heard clear across town. It will be mounted at the south end of Stambaugh Stadium.

Shifts were not always eight hours. At one time, they could be twelve hours but with the efforts of unions, mills gradually went from two to three shifts. It was optimal to run around the clock, and economic times had to be hard to lay off a shift.

Most people didn’t like working the night shifts. You just couldn’t sleep as well during the day, yet, because of the dangers of steel-making, you need to be alert at night. Studies show that more accidents, work place errors, and a variety of health issues from higher alcohol use to heart disease and cancer may be related to night work. Similarly, while guys liked the extra money of over-time, when they could get it, this also is hard on health. It seems like most of the dads who worked in the mill in our neighborhood tended to work days. They’d often stop at one of the bars near the mills and you’d see them between 4 and 5 pm, in time for dinner.

One of my family members worked for a time in the mills at Republic Steel, and being low in seniority, he worked a number of nights. I remember going with dad sometimes on Friday nights when we were allowed to stay up late to drop our family member off at the mill and being in awe of how the mills lit the night sky and the size of the blast furnaces up close.

The passage of time across the Mahoning Valley is not marked by shift whistles these days. Shift work goes on in factories and places like hospitals. But on Saturday home games each fall, a sound many of us grew up hearing every day will remind us to root for our YSU Penguins and call back the memories of the past, and maybe memories of anticipating dad’s or an older sibling’s arrival home.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016.

Summary: A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author.

This book caught my attention for a number of reasons. J.D. Vance is an Ohio author. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University, as is my son who is the same age as the author. And a number of reviewers have said this book explains the appeal of Donald Trump. I was interested for another reason. As those who follow my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts know, I grew up in a working class, rust belt town as well. On the opening page, he writes, “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” That sentence could have been written about my home town.

At the same time, Vance comes from a distinctive sub-culture, the Scots-Irish hillbilly culture of eastern Kentucky, as opposed to the eastern and southern European roots of many of the people in Youngstown, although we had our share of hillbillies who had made their way north to work in the mills. Vance takes much of the first part of this book to describe his family roots–the scrappy, fiercely independent and fiercely loyal to family character of these people who would take a chain saw to someone who insulted their mother, sacrifice to no end for children and grandchildren, and fight like cats and dogs with each other. We learn of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, estranged from each other, but who turn a corner when they see how their fighting destroyed their daughter, Vance’s mother, who struggled with alcohol and opiate addiction, lived with a series of men, creating an increasingly unstable home environment for Vance. He describes himself at the edge of the abyss, with declining grades and beginning to abuse substances. He recounts his mother’s episodes of violence, and then the utterly heartfelt apologies, with nothing changing.

The turning point came when his mother came to him to provide her with a urine sample so she could keep her job. He writes:

 “I exploded. I told Mom that if she wanted clean piss, she should stop f***ing up her life and get it from her own bladder. I told Mamaw that enabling Mom made it worse and that if she had put her foot down thirty years earlier, then maybe Mom wouldn’t be begging her son for clean piss.”

From then on, he lived with Mamaw, and describes how life improved. She insisted he study hard and in her own rough way insisted he contribute to the household, do his chores, all, with the hope that he would have a better life. After graduation, he realized that he still didn’t know entirely how to do that, and deferred college to serve in the Marines. Not only did they teach him what he was capable of physically, pushing him harder than he’d ever been pushed; they taught him life skills like balancing a checkbook and handling money. He learned to stop listening to the voices that said, “you aren’t good enough”, the pervasive hopelessness of the working class culture he’d come from. He ended up handling media relations for his base, and receiving a commendation.

He used veterans benefits to go to Ohio State, finished in two years, and gained admittance to Yale Law School. For the first time, he came to understand the importance of social capital. After his first “interview week” he observes:

“That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”

A law professor provides him with some of her social capital, and something more, advice at a crucial point putting the focus on a budding relationship rather than a clerkship that really didn’t matter to his ambitions.

The conclusion of the book faces the stark realities of coming back to Middletown, now bereft of its steel plant, its people struggling with not only making it in lower income jobs, but opiate addiction, families in turmoil and more. These are the “left behind” working class to whom Trump appeals. Yet one gets the sense in reading Vance that he doesn’t think Trump, or any politician, can solve their problems, because the unstable lives they’ve chosen, or in the case of children, been thrust into, won’t enable and equip them to keep any jobs that may be gained. It is a crisis of spirit and hope. Vance thinks ultimately that this is a culture which needs to find its own answers, needs to come up with its own Mamaws and Papaws, and culture-renewing institutions. In contrast to other-worldly, insular fundamentalist churches and dysfunctional families, he asks:

“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”

Vance’s book actually gives us hope. Truth was, he didn’t need a lot of social capital to make the difference. A tough old grandmother who provided stability and structure and expectations that he could make something of himself was enough, at least to get him on the right course. That may seem over-simplistic. And it won’t help everyone. It didn’t help Vance’s mother. But it makes the point that the critical capital in any community is not the capital poured in by public and private means, but the capital of the people who live there, and whether they have the spiritual resources of hope to believe their own choices matter.

Politicians peddle panaceas. I’ve watched them do it in my home town. But the people who have made a difference and created bright spots don’t look to politicians but to God, themselves, and each other, and then put their backs to the hard work of providing role models for kids, and to rebuilding, a neighborhood and a business at a time. I appreciate Vance for naming the illusions to which politicians pander, the realities that defy political solutions, and what made the difference for him–the tough old grandma, the drill sergeant, the law professor, who took the time to provide structure, and counsel, and affirmation. Could it be that it is just that simple, and just that hard?

Multicultural Reading Groups


Another multicultural discussion group. Photo by Robert Trube, 2012 (all rights reserved)

I am in the midst of a multicultural reading experience. Our book group, The Dead Theologians Society is reading Shusako Endo’s Silence. We’ve had four new participants join us this fall: a student from Japan, another from China, a third from Ghana, and a woman from Venezuela, who joined in for the first time today.

The Japanese student has been a special gift in explaining some of the cultural references of this novel, set in Japan. But today, the Chinese student gave us an interesting take on a hymn a Japanese martyr was singing, and the similarities to a Buddhist outlook. We just were reading it in Christian terms but it made us wonder how much Buddhist beliefs had been mixed with these. Our Ghanaian student has added interesting observations and questions about relationships in the book that others of us have missed.

Our group meets in a university context, which often is a global crossroads. Yet I’m struck with how rarely, even when we have the opportunity do we enjoy this wonderful mix of perspectives, to see a work with different eyes. I’m also appreciative of how helpful this is with a work that originates in a different culture. A bunch of white people reading a book from another culture will still miss many cultural nuances.

I think this is equally important in discussions of books from Western sources. We don’t see our own cultural blind spots very well, the things we assume because that’s just the way it’s always been. I’ve found this in Bible reading groups as well. The truth is, the Bible originated in a Middle Eastern context, and sometimes people from Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe, or even Asian cultures may understand this better, or certainly differently than I.

One important challenge in such groups is making sure we welcome and encourage the contributions of everyone. Those from other cultures may defer to the Westerners or “dominant culture” folk in the group. Asking for the ideas of someone who has not spoken yet can be helpful, both in creating space for those from other cultural backgrounds and reminding the more gregarious to listen.

A group like this won’t just happen. It probably means thinking about who you’d like to invite to the table beyond your own cultural group, and being intentional about that, and inviting them to invite their friends as well. It means listening to their book recommendations in deciding on new readings. And it means being open to having your thinking changed.

I’m still on a learning curve here. I’d love to hear what others who have tried this have learned works well!

My Precious…

img_2388I’ve been thinking about an insight that came up in two different books I read recently on the Inklings, the circle of academics at Oxford that featured C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. The insight that both Lewis and Tolkien had was into the destructive power that technology could have when detached from human values.

One of the things they also recognized, with the Ring as an outstanding example, is how beings may pour their power into objects, which they may use to dominate others or control their world, and yet in the end come to dominate us and gain a stranglehold on our hearts. One thinks of Gollum’s relentless pursuit to regain the ring he had lost, his “precious.” Indeed, it was not only precious to him, but even more to Sauron, who had poured so much of his power into the Ring to dominate others. Both Lewis and Tolkien, having seen the machines of war, recognized how destructive technology could be, with consequences unintended but deadly.

There has always been a double edge to just about any technological advance. Antibiotics enable the body to fight off infection, and breed superbugs impervious to their effects. Automobiles have given us the opportunity to quickly travel across a city or state, and changed our urban landscapes in the process.

I’ve been thinking about how we’ve poured so much of our power into our smartphones. Until a few years ago, I had a “dumb” phone. Even it could be a phone, I could text, take pictures, and play some games–a big advance, it seemed over a landline, which was just a phone. Now, I can phone, text, tweet, blog, email, post, find my way around an unfamiliar town, deposit checks to my bank account, access credit accounts, store a credit card to pay for things, plan an exercise routine, track my step counts, see what books my friends are reading, load books I want to read, music I want to hear, take incredible photos and share them with other people taking incredible photos, keep an appointment calendar, share documents, catalogue my record collection, check in for flights and load boarding passes, check the weather, get ratings for just about any business, quick order something from Amazon, access my health insurance provider, reserve a rental car, access choral music my choir is rehearsing–I think you get the idea.

Today, I was just about to sit down in a restaurant and realized I’d left the phone plugged into my car charger. I had to go retrieve my “precious.” A little over a year ago, I either wasn’t doing the things above, or I was handling them differently. Now the power to do all this stuff is concentrated on this phone. And, as convenient as this is, I wonder if this is a good thing.

Neil Postman has proposed that we can reach a stage in our use of technology where technology controls us and shapes our lives, and this may not always be good. This summer, we were sitting out, and noticed a number of people walking while staring at their phones. Now people often do this to some degree, but this seemed especially intent–and then we realized that we were watching Pokemon-Go in action. There is an episode of Star Trek, where a game takes over the lives of the Enterprise crew. Is this happening with us?

I struggle with this. I look at my phone too much, and sometimes when I should be listening to a real person. The alerts, little numbers telling me I have emails and messages lure me in, the endless surfing from post to tweet. I keep checking it to see if anything else has happened in the 5 or 15 or 30 minutes since I last looked at it. I’m learning that “smartphone hygiene” isn’t about spraying my phone with Lysol. It is about not accessing it when I should be present elsewhere, not sleeping with it nearby, and not using it as an entertainment substitute most of the time.

I also struggle with what we surrender for this convenience. All the data we yield up about ourselves–how will that be used? One thing I know is that a huge amount of brainpower is going into reaping more and more from that data. It makes me wonder, am I seen as a human being, or simply as a data source?

I suspect this is far from the only “precious” in my life. But it is a vivid illustration. I carry an incredible “power” in my pocket. I wrestle with the reality of its power over me as a person who ultimately acknowledges only one Power worthy of my ultimate loyalties. I sometimes am tempted to just find the equivalent to Mt. Doom and toss it in. Far harder it is to live with the double-edged character of technology without surrendering to it.

Then again, maybe that is why so many of these things are catching on fire…

Review: Bedeviled


BedeviledColin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An exploration of the conflict of good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and how two World Wars influenced their thinking.

This is the second of two books that look at the intersection of war experience and the works of Lewis and Tolkien. The difference, I would say, between Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War (reviewed here) and this book is that in Loconte’s book, war is foregrounded to a greater degree; in Duriez’s book, the nature of evil, the evil powers, and the conflict with the good running through their works.

The book opens at the beginning of World War II as Lewis puzzles over the attraction of Hitler. Duriez writes:

“As planned, they tuned in and listened on the radio to a speech by Hitler. The BBC provided a simultaneous translation. A possible answer to a puzzle occurred to Lewis as he listened—how was the German leader so convincing to so many? Though Lewis rarely read the daily newspapers, he of course knew Hitler’s claims were grossly untrue. Making what he blatantly called his ‘final appeal to common sense,’ Hitler boasted, ‘It never has been my intention to wage war, but rather to build up a State with a new social order and the finest possible standard of culture.’

Hitler’s emotive speech may have still tugged at Lewis’s mind in the quietness of his church that Sunday. England faced the very real danger of invasion by Hitler’s forces, driven and maintained like a machine….During the church liturgy and bad hymns (as Lewis regarded them) he found his thoughts turning to the master of evil, Satan. Somehow, the arrogant dictator resembled him—not least in the size of his ego and self-centeredness. In the jumble of thoughts jostling with words of a great tradition, it struck Lewis that a war-orientated bureaucracy was a more appropriate image of hell for people ignorant of the past than a traditional one. Here was Hitler bent on taking over and ruling European countries, including England. There was the devil, who had designs to exert his will systematically over all parts of human life, his ultimate aim being dehumanization—the “abolition of man,” as Lewis later called it.” (pp. 21-22).

Duriez proceeds to show how the “war-oriented bureaucracy” that aim to dehumanize was at the heart of Lewis’s portrayal of hell and the work of the tempters in The Screwtape Letters. Chapter 3 then shows how much of the work of Lewis and Tolkien during the Second World War focused around devilry, from the decision of Tolkien to begin writing The Lord of the Rings (a new Hobbit book) to Lewis’s publication of The Problem of PainThe Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. In addition, there were the BBC broadcasts that formed the core of Mere Christianity, in which Lewis argues for our sense of right and wrong as basic to our search for meaning, and from this to a Christian understanding of God and his work in Christ. In fiction, he explores the same themes in the Space Trilogy as Ransom understands the nature of our fallen planet in Out of the Silent Planet, fights evil in the character of Weston in Edenic Perelandra, and faces the banal but de-humanizing character of evil, so present in Hitlers prison camps, in That Hideous Strength, where technology is de-coupled from human values.

This last idea is one both Loconte and Duriez explore, how a tendency of evil is to pour one’s power into objects which are then used to dominate, such as the Ring (or Voldemort’s horcruxes in Harry Potter lore). When technology is severed from transcendent values seeking human flourishing, it may then be used to dominate the very humans it was meant to serve. [I sometimes wonder about our smartphones, and the connected world they represent, and how much power we have poured into these devices, and how in turn, they shape, and even dominate our engagement with the world. Is this our culture’s “one Ring to rule them all?”]

While the first part of the book explores the problem of evil, particularly laid bare by war, the latter part of the book focuses more on the intersection of good and evil, exploring progress and regress in Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, the divide between good and evil in Tolkien’s “Leaf, by Niggle” and Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the power for change, whether good or ill, portrayed throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, and the experiences we have of pain and love in A Grief Observed, The Four Loves, and Till We Have Faces (this last exploring the evil of loving inordinately and possessively, and the hope even here, for redemption).

The final two chapters consider how we become free of the tyranny of self to become who we are truly, and the images of future hope in both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writing. The book then concludes with two appendices which return to themes explored throughout the book: “War in Heaven” being concerned with devilry, and “The Spirit of the Age” with subjectivism, the detaching of morality from any transcendent sense of meaning, anticipating both scientism and our post-modern turn.

I found Duriez’s exploration of the forms evil can take in modern society chilling–the machine, the soulless bureaucracy, the big lie that they state can make us safe, secure, and usher in a new order of greatness. Against this is the challenge of goodness, that makes no dramatic or inordinate claims, that recognizes that the small choices matter the most and may lead us “imperceptibly toward good or evil, heaven or hell” (p. 145). We see in Lewis and Tolkien, the heroism of the ordinary person, with no pretensions, acting in faith and trusting obedience in the face of threatening evil, and the final victory of the good. They wrote to encourage those facing the great conflict of World War II, and in their words, we might also find the kind of bracing comfort we need to face the challenges of our own day.

Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War


A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Summary: A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works.

In one sense, Joseph Loconte covers ground that others have covered in exploring the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. What Loconte uniquely does are two things. For one, he explores why Lewis and Tolkien defied the trajectory into disillusionment of so many in the post-World War I generation, and went on to embrace and espouse a vibrant Christian faith. As for the second, Loconte reads the works of these two men, exploring how war experiences shaped the imaginary worlds of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Middle Earth. He articulates his particular theses as follows:

     “Indeed, it was the experience of war that provided much of the raw material for the characters and themes of their imaginative works. In a talk called ‘Learning in War Time,’ Lewis explained how war exposes the folly in placing our happiness in utopian schemes to transform society. ‘If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’ As we’ll see, unlike the disillusionment that overwhelmed much of his generation, Lewis would use the experience of war–its horror as well as its nobility–as a guidepost to moral clarity.”

For Loconte then, the beginning point is to discuss the “Myth of Progress” that preceded the war as it viewed humans, society, and technology evolving to ever more enlightened forms by which humanity would cast off the darkness of ignorance that had contributed to so much suffering in the past. With the onset of the war and the horrors of the trench warfare (perhaps Tolkien’s inspiration for his vision of Mordor), these illusions were shattered for many. Both were casualties of war through illness or wounds. In Lewis’ case, a journey through the country to a hospital to convalesce may have sparked a vision of Narnia. It was during Lewis’s war years that he came across George McDonald’s Phantastes, that certainly contributed to the conversion of his imagination.

War’s end brought the massive disillusionment of much of the intellectual class. While Tolkien devoted himself to work and to his Catholic faith, and began to sketch the outlines of the great myth that would be the foundation of Lord of the Rings, Lewis struggled with doubt. Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926, recognizing their common interest in languages. But they had a profound disagreement about myth that culminated in a long conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson in which Lewis recognized the story of Christ dying and rising to be a true myth, a crucial step for Lewis in coming to Christian faith. In the years ahead, they would collaborate as two key figures in a larger group knowing as the Inklings in a host of writing projects that birthed the Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many of Lewis’s apologetic works. Through the mutual encouragement they gave each other and their vibrant faith, they provide a counter for the outpouring of disillusioned, despairing writing of the post-war period.

What is more, they envisioned in their work, shaped by their experience of a brutally efficient technology unhinged from a larger theological framework, the ways bureaucracy and technology might interweave to obliterate the human image in books like That Hideous Strength, or in the idea of a Ring of Power that could subject all manner of beings to its owner’s bidding. Seeing the machines of war in their own experience, and the more sinister regimes of Hitler and Stalin, they could write of the evil power that, as Screwtape desires, would devour the other.

Yet Loconte shows how this bracing grasp of the nature of evil did not discourage them. Their works were infused with Christian hope–an Aslan that rises, a hobbit who, against all hopes, fulfills his mission with the help of tragic Gollum, the crowning of Aragorn as the long-awaited great king, and the Christ-like figure of Ransom, who summons both Merlin and the angels to subvert the villainies of the N.I.C.E. Like the foot soldiers in the war, many of the most significant turns of events come from the actions of children and hobbits doing their duty.

This, as I said, is not a book that covers new ground, but I found myself as I read making new connections, the “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments when you see something you know in a new way. Loconte concludes the book with a tribute to grandfather, Michele Loconte, who fought with the American forces, and only after the war became a U.S. citizen. Loconte says his research helped him understand more how the war had an impact on so many ordinary families including his own. Fitting that an Inklings scholar should make this connection between his own history and that of the Inklings!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Trading Stamps


By Bill Hathorn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Remember trading stamps? S&H Green Stamps, Plaid Stamps, Top Value Stamps, GeM Stamps, Eagle Stamps? These were a fixture of our growing up years. My wife can point to a guitar, an old blue suitcase, and a bowl we use for potato chips that were obtained by redeeming Green Stamps. I remember my folks getting a set of TV trays with theirs, and I have an HO slot car set buried somewhere in our house, the nucleus of which came from trading stamps redeemed for a Christmas gift.

Essentially, these functioned similar to customer loyalty cards and cash back rewards on our credit cards. It was a way by which retails stores, grocery stores, and gas stations encouraged repeat business. We received Plaid Stamps at A & P, Green Stamps at many businesses and gas stations, Top Value stamps at Kroger (when they still did business in Youngstown).

Both of the big downtown department stores gave out trading stamps. I know because one of my jobs in customer service at McKelvey’s (later Higbee’s) was to give out GeM stamps (from G.M. McKelvey) when customers would bring us their receipts. We also redeemed the pink savings books for store cash. Strouss’ had a similar program with Eagle Stamps, from their parent company, May. The challenge was how to tell customers that we could not redeem their Eagle Stamp books at McKelvey’s. And when Higbee’s management decided to discontinue the stamps, we got an earful!

S & H (short for Sperry & Hutchinson) Green Stamps had local “redemption centers”, showrooms where you could see available items and how many Green Stamp books it would take to “trade” for the item. It felt like you had gotten something for nothing when you walked out of a store with an item for which you had exchanged a bunch of stamps that the grocery stores and other businesses gave you automatically. I seem to recall that some of the trading stamp companies also had catalogs from which you could order, paying with your completed books.

One difference from today’s loyalty programs is that when you pasted your stamps into their books, you could immediately see your progress toward the goal of a completed book. These days, you have to check an app or go to a website–the feedback is more virtual than tangible, and carries with it all the data retailers are gaining about our shopping preferences and habits. The old way was far more private–no one knew what you had purchased to get those stamps. All I ever looked at on receipts was the amount someone had spent.

According to Wikipedia, at one time S & H Green Stamps boasted that they printed more stamps each year than the U.S. government. This changed during the recessions of the Seventies as gas stations stopped giving them out during the energy crisis, and stores cut prices rather than give out stamps, or turned more to couponing. Now trading stamps are among the ephemera of a by-gone era.

Do you still have any laying around your house, perhaps hidden away in a drawer? Would love to see your pictures.

Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed


So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015.*

Summary: Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience.

If you have any kind of presence on social media, this book should give you pause. In fact, even if you are not on social media, it might make you think. Any kind of transgression, whether an offensive statement, or an impulsive act can become the object of a public shaming campaign on social media. It often can be vicious, pervasive, you can even lose your job, and it stays there–on the internet.

Jon Ronson begins by describing how he used shaming to free himself from a form of identity theft cloaked in academic jargon, as a group of researchers created a spambot identity on Twitter of Ronson. Ronson’s only recourse after a film interview of the spambot creators being cute was to upload a video (yes, they were arrogant enough to allow themselves to be filmed) to expose what they were doing. A vicious series of comments wishing all sorts of unspeakable fates followed. The spambot came down. One more victorious shaming campaign!

Then along comes the case of Jonah Lehrer, a one-time promising science writer exposed by journeyman journalist Michael Moynihan. Moynihan became suspicious of quotes of Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book on creativity. They just didn’t sound like Dylan to him, and it turns out they were fabricated. Other material was plagiarized from press-releases, and from earlier pieces he’d written (self plagiarism, a little more controversial, but the rule is still to cite yourself rather than use the material uncited). When Moynihan published an article it effectively spelled the end of his journalism career. Ronson recounts the eerie scene in St. Louis, where Lehrer attempts a poorly constructed apology, with a live Twitter stream of comments being shown on a screen behind him. Posts like this were typical:

“Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist.” (p. 43)

Lehrer, as far as I can tell is still trying to reconstruct a writing career with a blog focusing on social science writing and recently released A Book About Love which makes a more forthright apology than the St. Louis speech, but has received mixed reviews. Fabrication and plagiarism tend to be career-enders for writers. In Lehrer’s case, social media and the internet make it far worse. A Google search still readily turns up the articles about his transgressions.

Ronson moves on to other lesser-knowns. There is the case of Justine Sacco, working in a New York public relations firm (of all things),who foolishly hit “send” on this tweet:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (p. 64)

She became  world number one trending topic on Twitter, before her plane landed, and no efforts to scrub Twitter, or issue an apology could save her job. He recounts the case of “Hank”, who at a software developers conference made a sexually innuendo-ed joke while sitting behind a woman developer, Adria. She turned, photographed him, and tweeted the incident. He came home to find he was out of a job. Eventually he posted something about this to find much of the developer community rally to his cause and shame Adria. Consequently the shamer became not only the shamed, but also lost her job.

As Ronson goes into these accounts, he begins to wonder what they reveal about the shamers, including himself, and their glee, and verbal violence in taking down their targets. Does the anonymity of the internet feed the phenomenon, the social distance between shamer and shamed. He contrasts social media shaming with Judge Ted Poe, who uses public shaming in sentencing. Far from being the “theater of the absurd,” as one blogger called it, Poe maintained, supported by testimony of those he sentenced, that it was the “theater of the effective.” Often, in this kind of public shaming, the defendant ends up being encouraged by people. It is face to face and not anonymous. And it works in turning around lives, maintained Poe.

The latter part of the book explores how people come through shame and explores the interesting idea that those the least apologetic about their shameful activity may cope better. There is the case of Max Mosley, exposed for some rather unusual S & M activities that were alleged to be Nazi scenarios. He turns around and sues the outlet that published this for defamation and wins, on the fact that the Nazi portion of this could not be supported by the facts. He freely admitted his unusual sexual tastes. Ronson also visits shame eradication groups that de-sensitize one to shame. Not exactly his cup of tea.

He explores the case of Lindsey Stone whose friend snapped and posted a picture of her flipping off and shouting at a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that said “Silence and Respect.” The kind of snarky thing lots of kids do, right? Well, the picture went viral, and once again, the comments were vicious, and the result was a lost job. Eventually, Ronson works out a deal with a company that works with online reputations and describes the strategy to bury the damning material way down in search engine results by creating a positive web presence for a person. The goal is to move the damaging stuff to page 2 where nobody ever looks. Their work helps the Lindsey Stone, and others who share her name, mostly by displacing the unsavory image with a host of other photos and web presence under her name.

Ronson’s book raises the question of what much of our “outrage” on social media really reveals, not about the objects of the outrage, but about us. His candor and self-reflectiveness about his own participation in shaming rites on social media invite us to ask, “when have I done this, and what does this say about me?” What I think he doesn’t explore and could be considered is the temptation to be provocative, to push the envelope in order to get more views, comments, follows–the definition of social media success. The closest he gets are the corners Jonah Lehrer cut under the pressures of a burgeoning writing career.

Ronson also reminds us that the consequences of our words on social media have impacts not in virtual reality but in the lives of real people. And his tale reminds us to reflect carefully before hitting the “send”, “post”, or “publish” buttons. Carelessness here could change one’s life, and not in ways one would like. Better re-read this before posting!

*Content and language advisory. Includes descriptions of various forms of sexual expression and profanity.

Review: Eschatology


EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.

Summary: A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective.

Craig A. Blaising is a biblical theologian whose roots are in the Baptist tradition. He has taught at three southern seminaries in the U.S. and is known for his work in what is called “progressive dispensationalism.” This volume of essays, a survey of scholarship around the “last things” was compiled in honor of his 65th birthday and certainly reflects this theological tradition at its best.

Discerning what theological persuasion the writers were coming from, I thought, “O.K. here we go, prophecy charts and predictions that our conflict with ISIS is the prelude to Armageddon.” There is none of that in this book. Instead, what I found was good scholarship seeking to be faithful to scripture and relatively wide-ranging in discussing the history of eschatology through church history and the implications of this all for the church, organized into a comprehensive survey that I would suggest reflects the best of dispensational premillenialism.

After introductory essays that include a biography and curriculum vita of Blaising, the book is organized into four sections:

  1. The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundations
  2. The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible
  3. The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought
  4. The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry.

Hence, the collection moves from theological foundations to biblical theology, to historical theology, and to pastoral and practical theology.

The first section includes a fine essay by Stanley D. Toussaint on the concept of hope and the profound basis the prophetic passages offer for hope that sustains endurance and joy. Then Charles C. Ryrie and John D. and Stefana Dan Laing address the eclipse of attention to the prophetic scriptures having to do with our future hope and the impact this has in the life of the church.

The next section explores the doctrine of the future in each part of scripture, essentially doing the spade work to construct a biblical theology from the whole of scripture about our future hope. It was interesting to see the historical books in scripture discussed by Gregory Smith, exploring the implications of the Davidic covenant and its statements about David’s, and Israel’s, distant future hope. If you want to find arguments for a future hope for Israel as a national entity, you will find it among this and other articles in this section.

Section three turns to historical theology with articles beginning with the early fathers and concluding with contemporary European theology, capped off by David Dockery’s article on Millenialism in Contemporary Evangelical Theology, which gives one of the best explanations I have seen of a-, post-, and pre-millenial positions. It was interesting that while several essays concerned Reformed, Anabaptist, and Baptist theology, there was no treatment of eschatology in Wesleyan theology, and a mere subsection of the Contemporary European Theology devoted to Catholic theology.

The final section turns to pastoral and practical concerns. J. Denny Autry discusses the place of eschatological concerns in both preaching and pastoral care. For my money, the book should have ended with R. Albert Mohler’s essay of contemporary challenges. Stephen Blaising’s contribution on the doctrine of the future and the marketplace felt like an add-in to include Blaising’s son in the collection. Mohler concluded his essay with these words, that should have ended the book:

     “The rapid disappearance of cultural Christianity in our own time will mean that Christians may soon find themselves in a situation similar to that of the early church in Rome. Preaching the Lordship of Christ and biblical eschatology rooted in the arrival of God’s kingdom will be considered culturally and politically subversive. Proclaiming a biblical eschatology that heralds the message “Jesus Christ is Lord” will lead to direct confrontation with the culture.

“While the disappearance of cultural Christianity is a cultural disaster, it is also a theological gain. It is disastrous for society because it will destroy a worldview most conducive to human flourishing. A post-Christian culture will be a very inconvenient place to raise your children, minister the gospel, or speak in the public square. Yet, at the same time, the evaporation of cultural Christianity may prove a theological gain for the church. Our lives and beliefs will only make sense if indeed Jesus Christ is Lord and our hope is not bound up in the city of man, but in a city to come. From a gospel witness perspective, that is a very convenient place to be.”

This quibble with the order and selection of these last essays aside, I would commend this collection, along with Dr. Blaising’s own work if you seriously wish to take the measure of dispensational premillenialist eschatological thinking today. This probably could be used as a basic textbook, or at least supplemental text in theology courses in Christian colleges and seminaries sympathetic with the dispensational premillenialist position. Rather than being about prophecy charts and sensational predictions, it is about the substance of Christian hope concerning the future of every believer, the church, Israel, and the world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.